On a recent Wednesday morning, about 20 students at Queens Technical High School marched into a supply closet and retrieved what looked, to an outsider, like silver suitcases. They sat back down at the classroom’s U-shaped table arrangement and opened what were in fact “advanced cable trainers,” kits containing the cables and wire cutters they’d be working with throughout their senior year. Meanwhile, their teacher, David Abreu, began to lecture them about what it’s like out “in industry”—the vocational school term for the proverbial “real world.”
“When you go out there, there’s no reason why anyone should be sitting on mommy’s couch, eating cereal, and watching cartoons or a telenovela,” he told the teens, who were mostly male. “There’s tons of construction, and there’s not enough people. So they’re hiring from outside of New York City. They’re getting people from the Midwest. I love the accents, but they don’t have enough of you.”
He asked the class if anyone could name the most common delay announcement on New York City’s notoriously beleaguered subway system. A hand with pink fingernails promptly shot into the air.
“We’re sorrrrrry,” a girl with curly hair and ripped jeans mimicked, before sticking out her tongue. The room erupted in laughter.
“Signal problems,” corrected the teacher, himself a graduate of Queens Tech. “They don’t have enough technicians to keep things working properly. What they need is you.”
Abreu was onto something. As the Brookings Institution noted in 2017, participation in career and technical education (CTE) has declined for several decades. That was in part because of a lack of funding and the fact that many states implemented more stringent academic requirements. However, the growing belief that everyone should obtain a college education also surely played a part. The National Center for Education Studies found that the number of CTE credits earned by American high school students declined by 14 percent between 1990 and 2009.
But the jobs are still there. NPR reported in April that the pressure to attend a four-year college remained so strong in American society that many high-paying jobs in the trades were currently sitting empty. Melissa Burg, the principal of Queens Tech, insisted that New York City’s Department of Education and some savvy parents had taken note of this dynamic, increasingly regarding a bachelor’s degree as the new high school diploma.
“I think those [trade] jobs go unfilled because skilled labor is looked down upon, even though those skilled labor people make more money than I do,” she explained. “I don’t know if people don’t want to work as physically hard as they used to, or if they see their families who’ve worked hard physically, or if those families are saying, ‘Don’t do what I did.’”
Meanwhile, in-state tuition and fees at public four-year schools have increased at an average rate of more than 3 percent above inflation each year in the past decade, according to data from the College Board. Experts say that’s partly a result of a sort of amenities arms race, in which schools use expensive construction projects to lure applicants. That cost—in combination with factors like increased demand and lack of state funding—is then passed down to the customer, in this case the student, and the situation has resulted in the average graduate walking away with almost $40,000 in debt.
For the students at Queens Tech, as for many young people across America graduating into what every newspaper and expert tells them is a wonderful economy, adult life is no longer about how much money they stand to make out of the gate. It’s about what size hole they might have to crawl out from just to break even. Perhaps that’s why there’s a renewed sense of energy surrounding CTE: Burg said that in the almost ten years she’s been principal—a timeline that roughly correlates with the last financial crisis—she consistently saw an uptick in applications. Brookings noted renewed interest nationwide as well.
Clive Belfield, a professor of economics at Queens College, said some young people might be wary of entering certain blue-collar industries because of the Uberization and outsourcing they’ve observed in their lifetimes. However, he noted that the trades may be less imperiled in New York than elsewhere in America, because unions are still a somewhat protective force, and suggested working for the MTA might be among the safest choices of all. Definitionally, those jobs can’t be sent to China.
Overall, he continued, a renewed interest in the trades might represent a natural market correction given how unaffordable college is, and how increasingly useless a diploma may seem to be. But in a world that pays a comically disproportionate amount of attention to Ivy League students and what they’re up to, even the most pragmatic 17-year-old may not pass up the chance at a four-year degree.
“It’s hard to think, when you’re that young and living in a world that’s obsessed with Harvard University, ‘This job is not very glamorous, but at least I’ll get to keep it,’” Belfield told me.
The decision to take on either stigma or debt—which carries its own form of stigma—is not an ideal one, and Mauricio Bustamante wrestled with it in his senior year. Now 20, he was in the enviable position of being offered both a union gig with the MTA and full tuition to a school upstate back in 2015. Although high school graduates had median weekly earnings of $718 in 2017, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the apprentice job paid $22 an hour to start, or $880 a week. That seemed like an enormous amount to the then-17-year-old kid who grew up in a single-parent home in Woodside, Queens. Then again, the prospect of being the first person in his family to attend college was undeniably appealing. There’s also the fact that the average college graduate took home a starting salary of $50,516 a year in 2017, or $971 a week, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). That number was even higher—$1,271—for engineers.
Both Bustamante and his mother changed their opinions on what to do several times.
“And then just as I was about to decline my offer at the school, she changed her mind and said, ‘You have to go,’” he told me. “I ended up doing it for her, really.”
Bustamante, a former student of Abreu’s who’s now a junior at St. Lawrence University, where he’s double-majoring in math and economics, ultimately figured it was worth at least trying to land a job crunching numbers for a nonprofit, or calculating risk for an insurance company. But when I canvassed students currently finishing up the electrical installation track at his alma mater, they were less focused on the college-versus-job question than whether they wanted to work below ground or in a more traditional office setting.
Haw Wunna Zaw, a 16-year-old born of immigrant parents, applied to roughly the same number of vocational and traditional high schools. His mom was a PhD candidate and his father went to military school in Burma, and, when we met, Haw said he hoped to work for the MTA after graduation while taking college classes at night. He added he’d received no pressure from his parents to choose university over going straight to work, something he attributed to the fact that, where they come from, there’s an immense pressure to go to college after high school. They just want him to be happy.
Still, he seemed to understand jobs in the trades had lost clout in American society. As union membership has declined, old-school patronage has broken down, and tech companies have disrupted industry after industry, fixing escalators for a living is less sexy than ever.
“If you’re a doctor, people admire you and you have the glory,” he told me. “If you’re a construction worker, you may get paid the same as a doctor, but you don’t look as good.”
Meanwhile, Brigitte Barcos, the 17-year-old who stuck out her tongue in class, originally applied with her best friend to Queens Tech, where the two planned on studying cosmetology together. The friend didn’t get in, and Barcos didn’t end up liking the track she was on. Then she found herself unexpectedly passionate about tinkering with circuits, planning to pursue electrical engineering any way she could. For her, that didn’t necessarily mean college and a degree that might help her become a supervisor for other people getting their hands dirty, rather than dirtying her own. Besides, she hadn’t bought into the once ironclad notion that college was a path to financial solvency.
"As union membership has declined, old-school patronage has broken down, and tech companies have disrupted industry after industry, fixing escalators for a living is less sexy than ever."
“I feel like everyone has the expectation that you have to go to college to get more money, and that’s a lie,” she told me. “You waste more money to go to college than you get out of it.”
The only problem, Barcos explained, was that her parents didn’t think trades like electrical installation were appropriate for women. That mind-set is one Abreu said he’d had to contend with over the years with relative frequency, though he’d also seen immigrant parents cheer on daughters with 95 percent averages who decided they wanted to help fix the crumbling transit system.
More prevalent, Abreu told me, was the unshakable conviction that college was the only answer, something he disagreed with his mother about decades ago. At one point, he had enrolled in a traditional four-year college, only to back out early after getting an offer to come back and apprentice at Queens Tech as part of another vocational program the school offered. His mother thought he had made a huge mistake—until she saw his first paycheck.
So when coaching students who are committed to taking jobs “in industry” but facing off with reluctant parents, money often amounts to Abreu’s best bargaining chip. In fact, he said, his kids stop at nothing to get those high-paying jobs. Part of that seemed to stem from the fact that Queens Tech has tended to be surrounded by trade unions, and students can see the incredibly long lines of people just waiting for a chance to apply. With the certifications they obtain as part of their high school curriculum, they can acquire what amounts to an express pass to jobs that thousands of people are visibly desperate for. That changes your thinking.
After class finished up for the day, Abreu told me about a group of former students who were dead-set on becoming bridge painters—a profession that pays around $95 an hour, and therefore remains highly competitive, even for trade-school VIPs like them.
“I said, ‘You know why they pay that much money, right?’” he recalled. “It’s a dangerous job. But there they were, out there in line the midnight before, standing out there together, huddled in the cold, just waiting for an application.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.